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The lessons of Russian warmaking

The Russian way of war makes it impossible to imagine Russia, in its present condition and under its present leadership, as anything other than a force for violent disorder in a world craving a measure of order.

Rescuers work at a site of a shopping mall hit by a Russian missile strike in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, June 27, 2022. The Russian attacks on the mall with about 1,000 civilians inside were the "largest terrorist attack in Europe in decades," said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. (CNS photo/Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine handout via Reuters)

CRACOW. Four and a half months after Russia invaded Ukraine on the Orwellian pretext of displacing a “Nazi” regime — a regime that enjoys a democratic legitimacy absent from Russia for two decades — what have we learned about, and from, the Russian way of war?

We have learned that the Russian way of war is inept strategically, tactically and logistically: an army using inferior equipment, bereft of competent non-commissioned officers, and replete with ill-trained draftees; an army that relies on brute force to bludgeon its way toward its objectives. We have learned that the Russian way of war willfully obliterates cities and deliberately destroys economic infrastructure. We have learned that the Russian way of war targets hospitals and schools, cultural and educational institutions, churches, synagogues, and mosques in an attempt to eradicate a culture and a nation that Russian president Vladimir Putin insists has no right to exist, save as a Russian vassal. Thus the 21st century Russian way of war breathes the spirit of 18th century imperialism, with President Putin comparing himself to that quintessential Russian imperialist, Peter the Great, and telling schoolchildren asked to name Russia’s borders in a geography bee that “the borders of Russia never end.”

We have learned that the Russian way of war is insensible to casualty rates, its own army’s and Ukraine’s. We have learned that the Russian way of war includes abandoning the Russian dead or disposing of their remains in mobile cremation units, so that body bags don’t flood the home front and raise questions about the wisdom of Mr. Putin and his generals. We have learned that the Russian way of war includes the humiliation, torture and probable execution of prisoners of war. We have learned that the Geneva Conventions on the humane treatment of POWs mean no more to the Russian military and its political masters than does the Fifth Commandment.

We have learned that the Russian way of war includes the use of cluster munitions and unguided missiles specifically forbidden by international law. Thus, the Russian way of war systematically violates the two in bello (war-fighting) principles of the just war tradition: proportionality of means (no more force than necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective) and discrimination (non-combatant immunity). We have learned that the Russian way of war features widespread rape, gross theft and the summary execution of civilians, as well as kidnapping civilians in Russian-occupied territories, relocating them and attempting to coerce them into renouncing their Ukrainian allegiance.

We have learned that the Russian way of war includes illegal blockades of Ukrainian ports to prevent grain shipments, thus threatening starvation in Third World countries. We have learned that the Russian way of war includes energy blackmail, threats of nuclear- weapons use and blatant bullying of other countries, including Lithuania and Kazakhstan.

We have learned that the Russian way of war involves the corruption of Russian religious leaders, beginning with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, who recently described contemporary Russia as “a miracle of God.”

We have learned that the Russian way of war includes depriving Russians of independent news and commentary, arresting thousands of Russian anti-war protesters, and flooding the Russian information space with propaganda and disinformation of a virulence that might make Dr. Goebbels blush (if only because that sophisticated liar would recognize how absurd such crudities make the perpetrator look).

In sum, what we ought to have learned is that the Russian way of war makes it impossible to imagine Russia, in its present condition and under its present leadership, as anything other than a force for violent disorder in a world craving a measure of order.

Foreign policy “realists” claim that this corrupt, brutal kleptocracy must be mollified because Russia is all that stands between Europe and an aggressive China. That is crackpot realism, and it is as least as dangerous as Panglossian idealism. Vladimir Putin, who blessed Xi Jinping’s wretched Olympics, is a barrier to Xi’s geopolitical ambitions? Please. Russia, a Third World country in public health terms, is a bulwark against Chinese expansionism? Please. The only Russia that can “balance” China on the Eurasian landmass is a reformed Russia that has confronted what it has never confronted since the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991: the false historical story that has underwritten Russian imperialism for centuries, and the utter failure of Soviet communism to create a humane society.

That confrontation, the precondition to Russian reform, does not begin with a Western-contrived exit-strategy for Putin’s aggression. It begins with Russia’s defeat in Ukraine.

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About George Weigel 500 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Puti with overweening pride, not unlike Satan!

    Megalomania for breakfast. Egotism for lunch. Neurosis for dinner. All the major food groups for a balanced diet of personal omnipotence and warmongering.

    Come soon lord Jesus.

    Revelation 1:7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

    Hebrews 9:28 So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

    Acts 1:11 And said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

    Revelation 22:20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

    Revelation 22:12 “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.

    BBlessed be the name of the Lord.

  2. Unfortunately for all of us lesser citizens who are not yet attained to be independently wealthy, while we may abhor Vladimir Putin, we can all see that for the Western political establishment (which in the USA has as its manifestation the “Clinton-Bush-Obama-Biden-Political-Settlement”), they have and will forever continue to “find-a-path-with-Putin,” as they have all enriched themselves by cutting deals with him.

    Now it is in their current interest to declare that their erstwhile collaborator in enrichment is The Devil.

    Well, people already knew that 30 years ago, when we first learned Putin ascended himself in the KGB.

    We didn’t first have to “look into his soul” or “hit the reset button” and cut the Uranium One deal or “wait till after the election for more flexibility.”

    Perhaps one day self-styled “moderate” political observers will train their rhetorical guns on the decadent money-grubbing elites who made Putin rich in the course of enriching themselves, and who are determined tooth-and-claw to keep enriching him snd murderers like him, by worshipping at their altar of the empire of $5 gas and Queer politics.

    But don’t hold your breath, because that wouldn’t be “moderate.”

  3. Right. And the U.S. has never done anything like dropping nuclear bombs on civilian populations? It can be reasonably argued that ultimately Truman saved more lives than were lost by bringing the war to an end, as well as it can be argued that there is simply no justification ever for using nuclear weapons on civilian populations. It’s complicated, and that is my point. Catholics readers deserve objective analysis, not one-sided propaganda. Weigel’s remarks on Ukraine always seem to be the latter.

    Neo-conservatism is just another secular world view not to be confused with Catholicism, or presented as the “Catholic” position.

    • This “We’re imperfect, they are imperfect” so there’s really no difference between us uses twisted logic. Motive matters too, and willingness to reform versus rigid intransigence.

    • Harry, while I agree that we would all be better off without Weigel the Warmongerer, it is actually not a difficult question on whether we should have dropped Fat Boy and Little Man. The answer is no, because it is intrinsically evil to kill the innocent.

      • I will leave the legitimacy of Truman’s decisions to the moral theologians, although I certainly agree that deliberately taking innocent human lives is intrinsically wrong. My point was that Weigel makes no attempt to provide objective analysis of the situation in Ukraine, but instead promulgates neocon propaganda.

    • The bomb stopped another war that killed half a million Chinese by the Japanese while the US was trying to stop the Hitler takeover. Read The Rape of Nanking.
      The US tried to get the leaders to stop their part in the war before dropping the bomb. They wouldn’t. And the US dropped flyers into the cities 72 hours before dropping that bomb so the innocent could be saved. The Unknow Story MAO, is an eye opener into the evil of communism.

  4. We have also learned that our own government, the government of Ukraine, and our British and European allies lie to us about what is going on in this war and what went on before it. Thus, we need to be very, very careful about believing anything we read or are told about either country’s actions. It is easy to mean well and yet be deceived.

    • British citizen here. What went on before it is that Putin’s agents murdered a British citizen on British soil with a radionuclide and murdered another with a nerve agent, again on British soil.

      Here’s a hint. Across the Bering Strait lie the regions of Chukotka, Kamchatka, Magadan, Sakha and Krasnoyarsk. Total population less than 4.5 million.

      They form a contiguous territory which could put the US border with Russia on the Yenisei River. The mineral resources there are beyond plentiful.

      Put all that together with the American can-do attitude, and you have a gamechanger.

      • A most interesting game changer that would require a regime change stateside requiring more leadership & courage than i can detect in our politicians and military. Permit to borrow the idea in another forum.

    • Joann and Harry, tell us the other side. Remember, you are counseling objectivity in reporting. But tell us the other side.

  5. Weigel provides an array of somethings that has a get-up of cohering. But it’s illusory, a mirage. He fields every point so as to avoid solutions and to falsely justify the sorry murderous stories of the Maidan strut-parade and Zelensky’s self-promotion. The Ukraine side of the picture is worse and the breakdown and betrayal in the true EU ideals is real; but Weigel conveniently sets these aside. All of this because Poland and US lefties have neurotic anxieties about the past and about notions with high-sounding meanings that everybody else must be made to pay for until that assembly has gorged itself satisfied.

  6. I know that chess game has its rules and box game too and all others. But since when killing game has any rule or fair play medal? Putin is monster. Of course. So we have to erase him or he will kill us. But its look like nobody is going to do that. USA france germany nobody. So it is disaster.

  7. We learned that Weigel is beholden to imperial propaganda, even when the Pentagon and other Western commentators are hedging their claims more and more.

    • More like he actually cares about the soon to be persecuted Catholics of Ukraine if they have to submit to Putin. Read about how Catholics, both Roman and Byzantine, are treated in Russia today. It is not a flattering portrait of Russian government.

    • Weigel is beholden to propaganda? He confirms what I’m seeing daily with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears from multiple sources. And saw for decades in the Soviet Union, the previous Russian dictatorship. Or perhaps all these images and voices are being produced in studios somewhere–sure!

  8. The arguments trying to support Weigel this time have fallen down badly -shamefully- because the “bloggers” involved are relying on old news with no content. Like Nuland and Haines and Burns back in March denying there were any labs in Ukraine they could “assess” as weaponized. Give it another go and see if you can do better. Weigel gets full marks for effort and if you bloggers can’t improve you’re stuck at the F grade.

  9. This war should never have been allowed to happen. The western diplomats who failed so egregiously are at least as culpable as Putin.

  10. More neocon garbage propaganda from Weigel. Please give us a break. Sure, it’s the Russian way of making war — which the Allies applauded in 1942-1945, even as they indiscriminately obliterated Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  11. Another balanced (sarc) article on the Ukraine war by Mr. Weigel. My question is this – what is Weigel’s reasonable proposal for ending the war? Zelensky has said he will not give up one inch of territory in negotiations. Is that Weigel’s position? Russia has had control of the Crimea and Donbas region for eight years. While I do believe in miracles, I believe there is no more chance of Russia giving these two areas back to Ukraine than there was of us giving New Mexico, Arizona and California back to Mexico eight years after we took them in the 1840’s. Is it Mr. Weigel’s position that Ukraine should fight to the last man, woman and child? It seems like it. I wish he would tell us. What is his proposal for ending, or continuing the war?

  12. One may or may not agree with this author’s unusual opinion (for a devout Catholic), but the real question is, should one trust that his opinion is reasoned? He has certainly written quite a few articles on this topic in the last four months.
    All controversies have at least two sides to be considered. Considering those two sides is a prerequisite for forming a reasoned opinion. Granted, sometimes the merits of one side far outweigh that of the other, but the weighing must be done, even if only pro forma. Thus one must ask, has the author here done this, in his apologetics for the Ukraine?
    It seems that the author has turned a blind eye to the provocations made upon Russia—whether the CIA-supported coup d’etat of 2014 that displaced a Russia-friendly government in Kiev, or the threat of NATO expansion. The author seems not to have considered the possibility that Russia had bent over backwards to preserve the status quo prior to 2022. Perhaps these things do not justify the special military operation, but, if one wishes to have credibility, one has to demonstrate that one has at least thought of them.
    And not once has this author mentioned the suppression of dissent and press by Kiev, and certainly he has not referred to the arrest of Russia-friendly political opposition in the Ukraine. This kind of cuts at the heart of the democracy the author wishes to extol, does it not? If some Ukrainians feel positively toward Russia, who would this author be to gainsay it?
    But what of those matters more directly pertaining to the war in the Ukraine? One is forced to note the following:
    Whether the litany of Russian war abuses are accurate or not, never once has this author ever deigned to address the alleged Ukrainian atrocities, neither in the current military operation, nor earlier when the Ukraine was alleged to be “killing its own people” (like Bashar al-Assad?) with indiscriminate shelling.
    Never once has this author mentioned the mines placed in the Black Sea by Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, as to whom to blame for looming Third World famine, well one must just wait and see what the Third World’s judgment is. Will they blame Moscow… or, egad, Washington D.C.?

    With the thought that Russia could have been an ally to contain and ameliorate a vast, powerful, and expanding China—an actual direct concern to my own homeland; this author does not seem to have considered this now-evaporated possibility. Perhaps the author’s first political interest is not my homeland, which is of course fine.
    But we are Americans. We believe in America and Americans. A people and a place. Hopefully a Christian (i.e., an orthodox Catholic) people and place. And we are fond of, objectively hold a special place for, Europe.
    But we do NOT believe in, or hold fealty to, a Liberal World Order. Quite the contrary.
    Additionally, with the “inept” Russian war machine comments, the author here doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. He has no training in the various perspectives of war—whether at the operational level, at a war college, or at a political science level. No serious military analyst doubts that Russia could have pulverized the Ukraine, and “blitzkrieged” its way through Ukraine from one end of it to the other, with armored columns and air supremacy, in about 72 hours. Had Russia chosen to do so.
    Russian conduct of this operation is only “inept” in comparison with the recent U.S. way of war, see e.g., Iraq, where everything up to the major cities was blasted flat. But the Russians don’t actually want to destroy the place. It isn’t altruism. When one’s goal is incorporate at least some of a place and people, it doesn’t make sense to Desert Storm it (and keeping in mind the number of Iraqis who have been killed post-2005).
    The fact is, Russia ought to be our friend, the friend of Christendom. Cautiously, one hopes all success for Mr. Putin. If Mr. Putin is truly fighting the Liberal World Order, we wish him the best and pray that Russia may win.

    • Russia is no friend of Christendom. Arrangements for the practice of religion in Russia include the establishment of the universal primacy of the Tsar-worshipping Patriarch of Moscow, a schismatic and a heretic, and the suppression of Christianity in all other forms.

      • If Russia, in its reverence for the martyr Romanov family, is not in your eyes the friend of Christendom, then you and I do not practice the same “Christendom.”

  13. You can’t murder civilians in the Donbass for 8 years and claim nobody may defend them and then run the risk by making more war there of a world conflagration so as to isolate China and get some notches against Putin.

  14. I find it very interesting that Weigel, in his essay on the Russian way of war, states that one of the Russian violations of just war principles is their violation of non-combatant immunity.
    I find this interesting because of his September 20, 2020 article in CWR, titled “Truman’s Terrible Choice” where he says that Truman made the right choice in dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Strange.

  15. Apologies , if the topic of the huge debt of the country being a major facor has already been addressed in the above comments and such since same might well be part of the conspiracy sectors, except seemingly it has been taken seriously enough by someone who would not be considered in that group consistently .
    The nugget of their theory is that the country has so much debt that even if all the land is sold off , it would still be huge .. that the financial manipulations and control using the dollar , buying up resources of poorer countries at cheap prices by maniplulating the markets … that these countries that oppose same,including the poorer ones are trying to overcome such a sytem .. that the war is linked to same , that if things fall apart , results can be drastic all around ..
    This being a Catholic site , having more awareness of that aspect can help with more compassion and oneness in hearts for all and for the focus of the Holy Father on the many related areas that the world at large is dealing with anymore also help for the poverty of spirit , free from the pride and greed with regard to personal wealth ..

    May the holiness and charity in more hearts help to avoid the evils and blood shed and turmoils of a brutal W.W 111 , by resorting to what The Church has been blessed with as the spiritual weapons .

    • Edit re FACTOR not “facor” ?

      I wonder, if the Kyiv “pro-EU” intelligentsia faction currently helping rule the nation and running war, who keeps party with supposedly “being pro-Poland” without meaning it, decided the bad idea isn’t worth much after all and it should cut its losses and abandon Zelensky; would then an apology be enough? And would that make Zelensky more trustworthy?

      And why would you apologize?

  16. Pope Francis on 14 July 2022 briefly spoke cryptically of moves by NATO that may have “somehow provoked, or not prevented” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Harry on 6 July comments on the “somehow provoked” side of the controversy: ‘Monumental provocation’: How US and international policy-makers deliberately baited Putin to war appealing to the Mearsheimer, Kennan, et al. thesis. Mr. Weigel focuses upon jus in bello issues rather than jus ad bellum. For a history of the U.S. on nuclear weapons, see Scott Ritter’s “Scorpion King.” The Pope does not praise Putin’s attack, but does rightly caution against adopting a Manichaean attitude which puts US under white hats and THEM under black hats. He consecrated both Russia and Ukraine to the merciful care of Our Lady. It will be difficult but very important to work on a diplomatic resolution before we make the atmosphere too toxic for charity or justice. Perhaps some of Mr. Weigel’s objections against the messy imprecision of Russia’s weapons could be corrected by providing him with up-to-date American armaments, but the real issue lies in our hearts rather than our technology. We have rushed into more than one war under false pretenses and there are surely many merchants of death who stand to profit from Ukrainian and Russian casualties. Both sides have made some serious miscalculations. What can we do about them to minimize the damage and correct the situation?

    • 1 Thessalonians 5:22 Abstain from every form of evil.

      Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

      The man without God has the measure of all things that catch his fancy. The Marxist likes to blame everyone else for problems. Nato does not war with Russia, the results might be catastrophic. It is Putin that is not thinking properly, his actions are despicable.

      • The central issue is not so much the war in Ukraine as the war in our hearts. The Holy Father has consecrated Ukraine and Russia both to the care of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Perhaps our bishops should ask him to do the same for the United States of America. We have a recent English translation of Lorenzo Scupoli’s “Spiritual Combat: How to Win Your Spiritual Battles” and Attain Inner Peace” (ISBN 1-928832-50-4) and an earlier version of the Slavic adaptation: “Unseen Warfare, being the Spiritual Combat and Path to Paradise of Lorenzo Scupoli, edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse, translated into English from Theophans’ Russian text by E. Kadloubovski and G.E.H. Palmer.” This is the real arena of battle. To be sure, the economic resources of industry, coal, natural gas, and petroleum in Ukraine and the Northern Black Sea can provoke covetousness from both East and West. Pipelines and market shares, too, can be a source of conflict. The Great Northern European Plain extending from France to the Urals is convenient for tanks and Russians might well feel surrounded by NATO and militarily vulnerable were Ukraine to enter NATO, even if the nuclear weapons to be stationed there were “defensive.” (Mr. Kennedy was willing to go nuclear over Cuba, where the threat was ninety miles off shore; Ukraine is adjacent to Russia.) Ukraine obviously feels violated, because her territory has been invaded. Can the parties walk back to the status quo ante? This will be hard, since so many people have been killed or hurt on both sides. What is the best and most just solution to help repair the damage? Today is the 105th anniversary of the Fatima event.

      • NATO, under American leadership, is engaged in a proxy war with Russia, by its own desire.
        Putin’s actions are not despicable; they are praiseworthy.

  17. It’s worth saying that comments suggesting that Putin is fighting for “Christendom” are appealing for insanity.

    In other words, Jesus is neither:

    A – asking us to launch missiles at apartment buildings in order to fight against drag queen story hour;

    B – asking us to wage war to spread Queer Ideology worldwide.

    Both propositions are, among other things, utterly insane.

  18. A pitched stand-off has been encouraged, facilitated and enacted by key NATO ideologues, against Russia and Russian interests. Instead of buttressing the internal democratic process and restricting it to itself, those ideologues adopted and adapted division in Ukraine civic life for the purpose, which also meant sealing it inside Ukraine at least for a time.

    Realistically, the issue is not Ukraine per se or Ukraine issues driving the content, rather, it is that NATO thrust combined with the “against Russia” business. But Ukraine never had to be defined as such and does not have to be. Neither does Europe.

    One way for it to unravel is for Ukrainians themselves to decide that the concept holds no meaningful future for them or anyone. For the rest of the world, we too can question the concept.

    A part of the NATO concept seems to incorporate a drive for particular Polish view of regionalism; following upon which Lech Walesa has now indicated his support for it. Once again, this view is being pushed forward as final even though 1. it may not serve the good, 2. it is not a singular Polish position and 3. other views in Poland are more amenable to Polish interests.

    I think Walesa has misjudged things. Communism collapsed under the weight of engagements via arms control. When this mechanism is in active motion it brings its own forces to bear in a way that cuts off strategic over-reach. I write this line to emphasize the last point. Arms control state-craft is an engine of diplomacy for peace and a storehouse of authority. It is gravely lacking.

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